“They are in another world and we must try to get them out of it”… In Bondy, children weaned from screens

It is past 10 a.m. this Monday morning when pediatrician Sylvie Dieu Osika tries to explain to us the anti-screen system put in place at the Paul-Verdier hospital in Bondy, despite the shrill cries of a child in the hallway. “It could be a screen child when they come in angry like that,” she remarks. It is in fact Ayline*, a little girl of two years and three months, who comes for a first consultation with the pediatrician.

Every week since 2019, Doctor Sylvie Dieu Osika devotes a morning to prevention and understanding the problem of screens in order to alert parents to the abnormal behavior of their children. Due to lack of resources, the system is now only accessible to those under 4 years old, compared to 11 previously. Age is not trivial, the first three years are the most important in the development of the child who, according to experts, must stay away from screens at this age.

However, in recent years, the “Overexposure screens” collective, Cose – to which Doctor Sylvie Dieu Osika belongs – noticed a change in behavior among the youngest. Among the symptoms, “children who do not speak at three years old, who do not look at you, who are not interested, who have frustration problems, difficulty concentrating and who do not know how to manage their emotions” . Most only calm down, eat dinner or sleep in the presence of a screen. They even adopt a new language, called “YouTube Lish”, which makes them repeat words, alphabets or nursery rhymes in many languages, without ever understanding them. On platforms like YouTube, algorithms have a lot to do with it. We’re talking about “captology”, the art of engulfing parents and children in tempting designs, considerably increasing screen time.

After the crisis, calm thanks to screens

When they arrive at the pediatric department this Monday, parents answer two questionnaires. The first is to understand the child’s screen habits, but also those of the parents. The second – the “Qchat” test – to evaluate children clinically. The higher the score, the more difficulty the child has and from 30 onwards, we can consider that there is a problem in the child.

We will learn it at the end of the morning but the very young Ayline* who has just entered the office of Doctor Sylvie Dieu Osika obtains a score of 61. During the session, her cries and tears will not stop. Except for the moment when, to try to calm her down, the pediatrician will ask the father to show her a video on the phone. The calm is short-lived, the phone has to be taken away because Ayline has to move away from the screens.

“A week of hell… like for a drug addict”

During this first consultation, the pediatrician seeks to understand if there are other disorders. Is Ayline looking in the eyes? Did she smile when she was a baby? “Yes,” assure the parents, a little worried but attentive. Social conditions are also questioned. We talk about moving, the family in Turkey which is far away… Anything that could have an impact on the child’s attitude. But here, there is not a shadow of a doubt: the screen really touched Ayline’s behavior. Proof of this is in the health record where a first report was made in his fourth month. But has the risk of screens been explained enough to parents?, the pediatrician constantly wonders.

Because it was only a year later that the first concerns really appeared. In the evening, she only falls asleep with a tablet connected to YouTube Kid and often has crying fits. For four months, the parents have tried to reduce the connection. From 8 to 9 hours previously, the child is only allowed 3 to 4 hours spent on screens. They are now ready to wean. “It’s easy to say, but difficult to do,” warns the pediatrician who recommends taking her outside as much as possible to exercise. “We see a child who doesn’t speak, who has difficulty managing her emotions. There is distress despite the good will of the parents. It’s probably going to be a hellish week during withdrawal, like for a drug addict,” the pediatrician tells us at the end of the appointment.

Small choreography during the day and song at night

But there is no time to breathe and the second child is preparing to enter bedroom 8 which serves as a study. Her name is Awa* and she is 3 years and four months old. Like the previous little girl, she is coming for the first time, but her weaning has already started since September. Since she was six months old, Awa* has been using screens to watch nursery rhymes on television. However, her mother assures her, she is not at all addicted and uses social networks only four to five hours a week. “But the dad is non-stop.”

The electroshock took place when Awa entered school last September. “It was catastrophic. She had difficulty adapting,” recalls the mother, quickly questioned by the school about the time spent in front of screens. Since then, the little girl has started weaning. If the television was easy to remove, the phones and tablets are more complex to keep away from the child. But behaviors remain from what she previously saw on the screens. In the middle of the office, Awa will, for example, perform a little choreography without realizing it. It is the same at home. At night, while she sleeps, the little girl hums music heard on YouTube for three hours. “It’s as if the child was in another world and we had to get him out,” emphasizes the pediatrician.

If the three-year-old child obtained a score of 64 on the Qchat test in September, the positive effects of weaning would eventually be seen. Awa is starting to say a few little words and is more observant, according to her mother. Her school teacher also noticed it. “She has confidence.” For the pediatrician, all is not lost, but “two years with a lot of screens is still two years with less acquired”, warns Doctor Sylvie Dieu Osika. The mother leaves the room enthusiastically with Awa’s little sister in the stroller. “We are not necessarily aware of screens as parents,” she regrets, before ensuring that she does not repeat the same mistakes with her second daughter.

After withdrawal, effects but still looking dazed

The third and last patient of the day is also in the process of withdrawal, this is his second appointment. Tom*, three years and three months, does not speak and keeps a bewildered look. His speech therapist diagnosed him with significant delay and behavioral problems. If potential autistic disorders are emerging for this child, the screen – which he started looking at when he was one year old – has an impact on his development.

In November, during the first meeting, he obtained a score of 49 in Qchat. “He knew everything about YouTube, knew where to type. He used the screens to eat,” says the father. The mother says she no longer uses her phone as much as before. The diagnosis showed that she was also addicted to it. “We hide it under the cloak now,” admit the parents. For the pediatrician, technoference is a key element: “It is the use of the screen by the adult responsible for the child in the child’s presence.” The watchword: be as available as possible for the child.

For Tom, weaning still seems to work. “We must continue the journey. You have to hold on because screens will never be good for him anyway, the pediatrician tells the parents. Be careful until the age of 6, you have to continue to stimulate him, try to get him out of it.” This is the second and final meeting for the little boy. On the doorstep, the pediatrician says a final goodbye to the more reassured parents. The little boy will not utter a word, no emotion will show on his face.

*Children’s first names have been changed.

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